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Feature 06.03.2020 7 minutes

America’s Dangerous New Era Demands a New Kind of Greatness

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The politics of nostalgia can’t meet the moment.

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You can tell Tom Klingenstein is a good leader by his focus on mission. He proposes “preserving the American way of life” as the new why of the Republican Party.

Klingenstein’s essay sets a powerful frame for understanding America’s escalating ideological divide. To succeed, we must combine his attention to mission with two other ingredients: urgency and vision.

This week, of all weeks, it should be obvious to anyone paying attention that we cannot take for granted America’s continued success as a nation. Yet many Republicans have a situational understanding of America that is stuck in the 1990s. The rise of Trump shook things up, but the prevailing party Zeitgeist remains high on Chamber of Commerce talking points and end-of-history self-satisfaction. Party leaders come across as complacent, stale, and unserious. Where is the sense of urgency?

Think about what’s gone down just in the last 90 days.

  • A global pandemic followed by two months of quarantines.
  • 40 million job losses with new claims every week. 40 million!
  • Trillions of dollars of new debt and stimulus spending, dollars as well-spent as Iraq War spending.
  • Riots fueled by leftwing extremists in urban centers across the U.S.—including my D.C. neighborhood, in which a car crashed on a street corner where I walk with my toddler son.
  • The Pulitzer Prize awarded to the 1619 Project, agitprop that fundamentally challenges and opposes the founding premise of the United States.
  • Geopolitical flexing from China, a communist-led regime that will soon overtake us as the world’s largest economy (a bigger threat than the Soviet Union ever was).
  • More evidence showing how the FBI and intelligence community were weaponized to undermine Trump and remove Michael Flynn.

It’s been wild to observe all of this. Police have gone from cracking down on haircuts to putting down a nationwide insurrection. The nation’s capital is still smoldering as I write this, and Republican senators are tweeting platitudes blaming all sides of the political spectrum for the riots.

The 1/2 Blackpill Moment

For many this is a blackpill moment. It is tempting to swallow this pill and embrace Aris Roussinos’s conclusion that “America is a failed state.” But though Roussinos’s diagnosis is apt, his conclusion goes too far. Going full blackpill seems irresponsible, an abdication of our children’s future and our nation’s history. There’s something juvenile and too easy about swallowing it whole. It also strikes me as misinformed.

No, America is not a failed state. But here’s the thing: we must act like it could become one. Because it could! We must take half of the blackpill. It is only by acknowledging that America could swiftly collapse that we can muster the urgency and seriousness needed to preserve the American way of life. The GOP needs to embrace this threat awareness in our collective nervous system. Like Israel, we must think of ourselves as under ongoing existential threat—because we are. No more denial and complacency.

Thus, any new GOP mission must be combined with a sense of visceral emergency and a style of politics that recognizes the fragility of the situation, not just in America but across Western democracies. Updating the party platform so the words say “preserving the American way of life” is not enough. The GOP needs alignment around a situational assessment that arouses fierce urgency.

Some may question whether the GOP is the best vehicle for this effort considering how divided and compromised the party is. Given our two-party system, I’m not sure we have any other choice, though we can all agree it is not enough. We must continue to build on the new type of Republican that emerged in 2016 and shift institutional incentives and party ideology in the direction Klingenstein suggests.

Part of this must involve better defining “the American way of life” and turning to an inspiring vision of the future. Klingenstein correctly points out that it moves us beyond “muh principles” and GDP growth to something more complete and human. It is very similar to MAGA, although one of its benefits is that it moves us beyond MAGA.

The Nostalgia Problem

“Preserving the American way of life” has the same implicit nostalgia as MAGA. MAGA says again, while Klingenstein talks about preserving. Klingenstein indulges in nostalgia in the way he describes the American way of life. For him it is an idealized version of the culture and values of the Greatest Generation. Even the image on his post—presumably chosen by editors—reinforces mid-20th century nostalgia. It’s a picture of a lily-white family with two kids, circa 1950s.

Is the vision inspiring enough? Maybe! My sense is that it is not.

Instead of a failed state, some friends now refer to America as a “joke nation.” This is clown world, they say. I can’t blame them for this perspective as we witness the incompetency of political institutions during the pandemic, the gender-denying extremes of contemporary liberalism, and sketchy, Jeffrey Epstein-type scandals. As Darren Beattie tweeted two weeks ago, has anyone contact-traced Ghislaine Maxwell yet?

The question we need to ask ourselves is: What would it look like to be a serious nation with a serious mission and an inspiring vision? What would it look like to have a competent elite committed to building a bright future for American citizens?

This is where the GOP needs to go. The new Republican Party needs to look forward to a future we build together, not just backward. We have to move beyond nostalgia. We need a vision of a future that inspires young people and attracts smart people. It cannot just be about preserving the American way of life, or recovering it, but advancing it.

America is not a museum. Our vision cannot be to live the lives our grandparents led, though that doesn’t mean we can’t extract some of the timeless principles and values from that era. Our shining city on a hill needs to be in the future, a future whose picture we need to paint.

The GOP must paint this compelling vision of future America. We must sell it and set it in motion. We must marry it with Silicon Valley calls to build and technology-fueled decentralization.

We are at a moment in American history that demands reconciling nostalgia with aggressively building the future, radicalism with preserving tradition, and normativity with contemporary culture. Klingenstein’s proposal is the beginning of an important synthesis. Let’s build on it and make it real.

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